Traditional and Modern Picaresque:
The Adventures of Lazarillo de Tormes and Forrest Gump
According to Maximillian E. Ovak, unlike some other literary designations, such as the baroque and the grotesque, the essential features of the picaresque in literature has been defined based upon a series of notable and specific works of fiction, including The Adventures of Lazarillo de Tormes. Lazarillo was a critical influence upon the genreâ€™s development and also its definition among literary historians. In general, the genre is associated with the following features: a fluid social situation, whereby the rogue hero can easily move in and out of history and his fortunes can take sharp upturns and downturns; a pseudo-autobiographical format, whereby the narrator claims to be either the hero or to know the hero and thus has authority in verifying and detailing absurd circumstances; and finally a partial and prejudiced narrator but one with a critical and reflexive view of the situation, even if the narrator and the hero are the same. Another example of a picaresque novel where the novelâ€™s narrator and the hero are the same yet extremely self-critical is that of Moll Flanders, whereby the repentant Moll looks back on her life as a prostitute and thief.
Other characteristics of the picaresque novel include a wide array of social classes, and a stress on material circumstancesâ€”the hero may be born poor and achieve great wealth, or may lose and gain several fortunes over the course of his existence. Being born into poverty is common as the beginning of the tale of picaresque characters. The story is usually episodic, and even if there is a narrative drive, it is usually fairly loose. The novel often focuses on showing the reader a series of strange places and people to amaze them, more so then to create a sense of suspense. Finally, there is what Ovak calls a sense of moving â€œhorizontally through spaceâ€ and â€œvertically through societyâ€ (Ovak 77). This means that the character changes place in the sense of traveling but also goes up and down in terms of his social class. But while these characteristics may be notable in fiction, they are not confined solely to literature. This paper will explore how the classical elements are manifested in Lazarillo and then compare how its features are adapted, changed, but are still simultaneously discernable in what has been called the modern picaresque of the film Forrest Gump, starring Tom Hanks. Forrest Gump is episodic and boasts a hero who is naÃ¯ve and undergoes a series of reversals of fortune, but its American context and more importantly its cinematic medium allows for less irony and satire than is present in the picaresque literary guises.
The Traditional Picaresque Model: The Adventures of Lazarillo de Tormes.
In the classic The Adventures of Lazarillo de Tormes, the young boy is apprenticed to a blind beggar by his own mother after his father is condemned as a thief. The beginning of book is narrated in Lazarilloâ€™s guileless tones, but the actual constructor of the narration is obviously not nearly as naÃ¯ve as his narrator, as he frequently contrasts Lazarilloâ€™s credulity with the hard lessons his masters impart upon him, beginning with the beggar who nearly beats him senseless with a stone. â€œâ€¦if I do not keep a sharp look-out for myself I shall have none to assist me,â€ Lazarillo reflects, and this sober idea could be said to define many heroes of the picaresque genre (17). The picaresque hero is rarely bad in and of himself by nature, but the hardscrabble circumstances into which he is forced compel him to behave in such a manner. Lazarilloâ€™s narrative voice grows more knowing as the narration continues and he sees the venal ways of the world, specifically the clergy.
The picaresque story often takes particular delight in showing how true virtue is seldom rewarded, versus those who are clever and effectively â€œgameâ€ the system. Although Lazarilloâ€™s mother contract him to the blind beggar because she believes the beggar is holy, and hopes that her son will lead a good life, in fact the beggar is merely clever at reciting Bible verses to wheedle money out of clients. One reason the story is authored anonymously is because it was perceived as having anticlerical overtones. The book is divided into a series of chapters, during which the hero is contracted to a series of masters, most of whom are representatives of the clergy. Of the priest, for example, Lazarillo observes that, his eye, â€œdanced about the moneybox as though they were quicksilver,â€ and Lazarillo mourns that he was unable to steal a single coin all the while he was working for the priest (28). Still, being contracted to the priest represents a considerable upturn in Lazarilloâ€™s fortunes, compared with his previous master. In fact, his kindest and poorest masterâ€”a squireâ€”is the only non-religious figure to whom the boy is contracted.
A deflationary attitude to the clergy is not an essential feature of the picaresque novel, although it is clearly part of the intention and thematic presentation of Lazarillo. Through a series of accidents, not so much by his own virtue, but by manipulating the scoundrels whom he encounters and the credulity of believers, Lazarillo eventually reaches a state by which, â€œI was at the top of the ladder, and enjoyed all sorts of good fortuneâ€ (79). This is not attained by personal goodness, but cleverness. It should also be noted that even Lazarillo, although he enjoys his prosperity, did not set out to gain such great security, but rather did so by accident and by attempting to survive a series of cruel masters who nakedly used the church for their own self-enrichment.
The picaresque can function as a satire as well as a striking portrait of different modes of life, and the vertical and horizontal trajectory of Lazarilloâ€™s existence is clear as he increases in wealth and also is exposed to a series of people who show him different facets of a venal and corrupt church that is more interested in enrichment than helping people or serving Christ. The Church claims to advance the cause of the poor, while simultaneously using peopleâ€™s fear of God to enrich its members. Lazarilloâ€™s desire for personal wealth, while self-interested, is not nearly as calculated as his mastersâ€™ and at minimum it is at least not hypocritical, and is thus less apt to draw the readerâ€™s ire.
Forrest Gump: A Modern American Picaresque
The film Forrest Gump portrays a man who is good-hearted but mentally slow. This puts him at a social deficit, along with his poverty, much like that of the classic picaresque hero. But while the narrator Lazarillo is clever but poor, and quickly loses his initial naÃ¯vetÃ©, Forrest Gump remains childlike. This could be seen as a uniquely American gloss upon the picaresque, whereby the central character has a kind of everyman status. The hero Roger Ebert mused that Gumpâ€™s appeal, unlike that of a traditional picaresque hero like Lazarillo, comes from the notion that anyone in America, provided they are good-hearted enough and appear at the right time can prosper. It is â€œa life story that eventually becomes a running gag about his good luck. Gump the football hero becomes Gump the Medal of Honor winner in Vietnam, and then Gump the Ping-Pong champion, Gump the shrimp boat captain, Gump the millionaire stockholderâ€ (Ebert).
However, some would disagree with the analysis that the American picaresque is always dependent upon a guileless hero, in contrast to European picaresque like Lazarillo. Consider the fact the clever hero Huckleberry Finn has also been called a picaresque American hero (â€œThe Cultural Context Surrounding â€˜Lazarillo de Tormesâ€™â€). Not unlike Huckleberry Finn, Gump grapples with issues like race, morality, ethics, and war and other issues of the day, similar to how Lazarillo confronted issues of religion and poverty. But while Finn experiences an ethical change over the course of his novel, and Lazarillo learns to â€œgameâ€ the system which would oppress him, Gump does not alter very much at all over the course of the film. In fact, the most notable aspect of Gump is his steadfast love of his mother and childhood sweetheart, even after she contracts AIDS from another man. The film derives its narrative impetus less from the heroâ€™s enrichment (although he does gain in fortune over the course of the film, it apparently means little to him) but from seeing him interact with various historical events and figures, always upon the periphery.
Like The Adventures of Lazarillo de Tormes, Forrest Gump has a satiric overtone, albeit a gentler one. In Gump, it is conveyed through the visual contrast of Gump being shown in various historical situations, often interacting with newsreel footage of presidents or during famous events such as the march on the Pentagon by anti-war protestors. Like Lazarillo, Gump does not appear to be passionately affected by the political overtones of these circumstances. Lazarillo bears the excesses of the clergy with a patient shrug, and while Gump is kind to a wounded ex-soldier who nearly dies in Vietnam and loses the use of his limbs, this does not become a source of antiwar sentiment (in contrast to how the picaresque but equally American Huckleberry Finnâ€™s feelings about slavery change over the course of his history of knowing the runaway slave Jim).
Thus, while Forrest Gump could be called an American envisioning of the picaresque, it also possesses certain unique features, such as the characterâ€™s lack of concern about money, and his prioritization of sincere emotional ties over everything else, that are not even present in other American picaresque such as Twainâ€™s famous novel. The picaresque novelâ€™s ironic, knowing, and distanced narration is not conveyed through the voice of the character so much as the visual contrast between Gump and people who are aware that they are making history. Gump does, in effect, narrate the tale as it is related through a framing device, and he does offer some limited insight, including his famous comment that life is like a box of chocolates. The theme that biting into a box of chocolates symbolizes the picaresque notion of chance may resonate with earlier versions of the formula, but Gumpâ€™s homespun belief in goodness, regardless of his finances or whom he encounters, could likely only be sold in a cinematic format, as it seems contrary to the ironic and satiric tone of the picaresque in written form.
The Adventures of Lazarillo de Tormes. Trans. J.C. Nimo & Bain, 1881.
â€œThe Cultural Context Surrounding â€˜Lazarillo de Tormesâ€™â€ Art and Analysis. Web. December
17, 2018. https://sites.uark.edu/alf010/the-cultural-context-surrounding-lazarillo-de- tormes/
Defoe, Daniel. The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders. New York, NY:
Ebert, Robert. â€œForest Gump.â€ July 6, 1994. Web. December 17, 2018.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1994.
Ovak, Maximillian E. â€œLiberty, Libertinism, and Randomness: Form and Content in Picaresque
Fiction.â€ Studies in the Novel, vol. 4, no. 1, 1972, pp. 75â€“85.
Zemeckis, Robert, Steve Tisch, Wendy Finerman, Steve Starkey, Eric Roth, Don Burgess,
Arthur Schmidt, Alan Silvestri, Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise, Mykelti Williamson, Sally Field, and Winston Groom. Forrest Gump. Hollywood, CA: Paramount Pictures, 2001.
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